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L.A.'s Christmas Tree Doesn't Quite Measure Up

The 25-foot Douglas fir outside City Hall is far outstripped by other municipal masterpieces.

December 23, 2005|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

On the first day of this month, in a small ceremony on the City Hall steps next to a bus stop, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa flipped the switch on the city's Christmas tree.

Villaraigosa, as always, was dressed in a nice suit. But the mayor might as well have been wearing a yellow shirt with a zigzag black line.

Good grief! This tree wasn't just tiny.

It was Charlie Brown small.

Officially, the city's Douglas fir is 25 feet tall. There is another tree of similar stature inside City Hall, but that one looks better because it comes within a few feet of touching the rotunda's chandelier.

In New York City this year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg lighted a 74-foot tree in Rockefeller Center, while Mayor Richard M. Daley illuminated an 85-footer in Chicago's Daley Plaza.

Up north, in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom did the honors on a 100-foot Monterey cypress that resides in Golden Gate Park.

In Roseville, a suburb of Sacramento -- say it out loud so it sinks in -- Mayor Gina Garbolino helped light a 28-foot Colorado blue spruce in front of a crowd estimated at 1,500.

Even the Grove, the fake Italian village in the Fairfax district, has a 100-foot tree -- which Villaraigosa helped light. The Grove isn't even a city! It's a shopping mall!

Down in Orange County, the Fashion Island shopping mall erected a 115-foot white fir it had purchased from a tree farm near Mt. Shasta.

It should be said that cities have wrestled with their Christmas trees for decades, and some clearly take it more seriously than others.

A few years ago, Miami bragged that it had the tallest, only to learn it had paid $200,000 for a tree shorter than Fashion Island's behemoth.

In 2002, in the English burg of Ripon, local pol and taxi driver Tony Simpson forced a change in tree after complaining that the town's 20-footer was "too puny," according to the Harrogate Advertiser.

Simpson told the local council "in no uncertain terms" that the tree was "a disgrace and only fit for firewood," the Advertiser reported.

The local council quickly found a taller tree for the mayor to light that evening.

A council that listens. Interesting concept, eh?

Anyway, back at Los Angeles City Hall, the official Christmas tree has been living a lonely existence on Spring Street since the lighting ceremony.

Occasionally, someone will clomp up the steps and look at it. Smokers taking a break from City Council meetings can sometimes be seen taking a puff by it.

Obviously, an explanation was in order, so a call was placed to the mayor's press office.

The press secretaries -- who are a nice enough bunch -- pranced around the issue for a couple of hours trying to find an answer about the tree's size that wouldn't be a double or triple entendre. Finally, they called back and showed they really do know how to spin an issue like a dreidel.

"Our tall trees are still in the ground, and during the mayor's tenure they will be joined by a million more," said Diana Rubio, the secretary who must have drawn the shortest straw.

She was referring to Villaraigosa's campaign pledge to plant 1 million trees to make Los Angeles even more beautiful.

This was news. Was the mayor secretly scheming to convert L.A. into the world's largest Christmas tree farm?

Rubio laughed politely. Reporters! Aren't they funny!

The larger point, of course, is that the residents of Los Angeles always seem to be on the wrong end of a hornswoggling when it comes to municipal celebrations.

Remember the Millennium?

On the evening that the calendar turned to 2000, Paris enjoyed a spectacular fireworks show near the Eiffel Tower, London introduced the Millennium Dome along the Thames and New York partied in Times Square.

In Los Angeles, the Hollywood sign glowed in the kind of pastels usually reserved for the Home & Garden Television channel.

It wasn't always this way.

As recently as a few years ago, City Hall underwent a holiday makeover that left the building strung with hundreds of lights. For reasons that remain unclear, the tradition died.

The mayor didn't seem too fazed by the small tree. "We have a $248-million deficit -- we thought we'd be prudent," he said Thursday morning. "Next year will be different."

Which brings us to Councilman Tom LaBonge, perhaps the city's most outspoken historian and booster.

Asked about its Christmas tree, he said, "The Christmas tree in the rotunda is a beautiful tree. The one outside is dwarfed by the columns of the grand City Hall of the city of Los Angeles."

Yes, he really talks like that.

He also added: "Any tree is a good one except a ficus tree, because they break up sidewalks."

A few minutes later, LaBonge had a change of heart. Driving down Spring Street, he and his wife gazed at City Hall and thought the tree and the modest light display were quite lovely.

"I take it all back," he barked into his cellphone to a reporter. "It looks great."

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